Ash Wednesday reflections

"You are dust" is a message that unsettles our self-image. Without the cross of Christ, we not only are dust but also will return to dust. But we are not without his cross.   

Of all the occasions in the church year, Ash Wednesday is the one I like the least. In fact, I dread it.

You see, my pastor uses the imposition of ashes at our church. It is Ash Wednesday, after all. At the specified time, members of our congregation walk forward. The pastor dips his finger into a small bowl of ashes, uses those ashes to make the sign of the cross on each person's forehead, and says, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

That makes me uncomfortable.

"O God, be merciful to me, a sinner"

Perhaps more so than any other day in the church year, on Ash Wednesday, I know that I'm going to be made aware of my sin. Don't get me wrong; I am always aware of my sin, but in day-to-day life, it's easy to push it aside. I make excuses. "I slipped up." "I'm just tired." "I'll try harder next time." "I could be worse." "It's not that big a deal."

But on Ash Wednesday, there are no excuses. There's nowhere to hide. We're all equal. All of us, sitting calmly in the pews, have a feeling that is more than a bit uneasy on the inside. We know this occasion marks the beginning of Jesus' journey to the cross, and we know that it is our sins that put him there.

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The pastor repeats this phrase again and again, as people step forward. Old and young. Men, women, and children. Yes, even children. For we all are sinners.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Death awaits them. Death awaits me. The wages of sin is death, and I am a sinner. I know that more than anyone else. Even those closest to me do not know the depth of the wickedness in my heart. But I do. And so does God.

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

The phrase continues, like the tolling of a bell, like a funeral march, until it is my turn. Somehow I have come to the front of the line. Somehow I have chosen to come forward, even though everything inside of me pleads to sit back down where it is safe and where no one will look at me—where I can avoid the thought of my sin and my death.

I stand in front of the pastor, and he says the same phrase to me: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

He smears two lines on my forehead with the finger he has dipped in the small bowl of ashes. I turn away, slink back to my seat, and pray the only prayer I can think to say: "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner."

"Because I live, you also will live"